You can probably be forgiven if the name "Sony Pictures" evokes only the image of a pudgy-faced dictator suffering a perpetual bad hair day. The incredible story of The Interview is the stuff of Hollywood legends, certain to provide the raw material for a first-rate navel-gazer of a picture some day. Probably not from Sony.
But lest you think we're kicking a multinational conglomerate when it's down, we're about to provide some excellent press for Sony. Because in covering some of the issues around the digital projection-of-movies boom of the past few years, I found that Sony Pictures actually enjoys a stellar reputation among people who care about preserving America's film heritage.
“They’re really just about the greatest company on the face of the earth,” is the way Elliot Lavine puts it. He's been picking and choosing films for Bay Area audiences for 25 years, as the program director of the Roxie in San Francisco from 1990 to 2003, and subsequently as the keeper of the theater's popular noir festivals. “Sony's library is vast, they’re generous, they’re helpful," he says. "They will lend you anything you want."
The Bay Area in 2015 is not exactly a time and a place where people shy away from taking shots at big corporations. But Lavine and the three other curator/programmers I spoke with who are deep into the exhibition of old movies all describe Sony as a benevolent presence in the festival/repertory landscape, lauding the company for a progressive commitment to preserving and distributing its library of old films. Those consist mostly of the Columbia Pictures archive that goes back to 1924; Sony bought Columbia from Coca-Cola in 1989.
The Digital Tsunami
To understand this appreciation for the entertainment giant, you have to understand the digital tidal wave that's altered the movie industry in the past decade, in the same way it has other media.
Check out how many of these film company logos involve film stock or film reels. How very 20th century! Studios now release new films almost exclusively on something called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). No more of those bulky reels of film that baby boomers used to lug around as members of the school audio-visual squad. These physical representations of the blood, sweat and tears that go into making a movie were at the core of the film distribution ecosystem for over 100 years. But now, new releases come in a hard drive, housing a beautiful arrangement of zeroes and ones, that theater employees formerly known as "projectionists" simply plug into a server. And while giving their new movies the digital treatment, studios have also been converting their old films to DCP, becoming much more restrictive about renting their back catalogue—sometimes through distributors—on 35mm.
As far as the general public goes, this is not a reason to take to the streets. In fact, most people probably like the digital versions of movies better, because they are free of defects like scratches and fading.
“Whether (the audience) knows it or not, they’re used to a level of perfection when they pay for a ticket,” says Adam Bergeron, the co-owner of the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, which shows new and old films in both 35mm and DCP.
Peter Conheim, a film curator active in the programming community, says the film prints that many of us saw at movie theaters were not exactly artisinal, anyway.
"The very fact that the labs had gone to a mass-production model of high-speed printing just meant for poorer overall quality control," he says. "I’ve heard of prints with incorrect framing, terrible focus, terrible optical soundtracks. Once any 35mm print got into the hands of a multiplex with a poorly-maintained projection and platter system, it could get scratched up from the very first show."
The Film Holdouts
From an economic perspective, it’s easy to see why studios have pushed relentlessly toward digital. “You have your digital transfer,” says Steve Seid, who curated films for the Berkeley Museum of Art/Pacific Film Archive for 26 years before retiring in December, “and you’re putting it on a portable drive that costs about $50 and can be erased and reloaded with another film. Whereas a theatrical print can be like $5,000, and it’s vulnerable. So every time you rent the film, they’re sending you a $5,000 investment, and when you rent it on DCP they’re sending you a $50 investment.”
The studios have also had to spend vast sums on the housing and shipping of prints.
But certain film purists are having none of that rationale. They believe film should be, well, film, and that exhibiting movies as a physical object with projected light shown through it is the way God and Cecil B. DeMille intended. The conversion to digital has roiled not just this cinéaste subset but also some of Hollywood’s biggest directors, including Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino actually delivered a bitter obituary for cinema at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, stating that digitally projected films are “just television in public. ... (W)hat I knew as cinema is dead.”
Says Peter Conheim: "It’s a replica of motion picture film. It’s just a reference copy, and you should always be able to see what the original thing looked like, imperfections and all."
Conheim's not only a film curator and former movie theater owner, he's also a man who's gone to great lengths to keep the art of traditional projection alive. That's if you consider "great lengths" to be turning the basement of his modest El Cerrito home into a 17-seat movie theater.
Conheim believes it can be an aesthetic disservice to a movie shot on film, and intended to be shown as film, to be shown digitally. Steve Seid described the argument against (and for) digital projection in his program notes to a 2013 PFA presentation about the technology:
“A prickly issue arises when an older film, born photochemical, is transferred to digital for projection. Suddenly, the 'film' finds itself occupying the screen in absolute stability, the subliminal flicker gone, the light values subtly altered, the contrast and depth redefined. Does this misrepresent the experience of film history? Perhaps. Or does it resurrect a history that might otherwise be lost to us? Again, perhaps.”
For some cinephiles, the answer is clearly the former. Both Seid and Anita Monga, director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, told me they have had people boycott their programs when they show digital movies.
Sony Pictures’ Efforts
Here's where Sony comes in. For people who love movies on film, the studio gets a big thumbs up for making just about the entirely of its 35mm print collection available to repertory houses and institutions like PFA. Among studios, this is the exception, not the rule, according to most of the film presenters I spoke to.
Grover Crisp's official title is senior vice president of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering for Sony Pictures, but Seid called him an “exemplary archivist” in one of his program notes. Crisp has facilitated Sony’s “reaching deep into their vaults” to return obscure titles to circulation, Seid wrote.
Crisp says Sony has retained original release prints—35 mm film—of most movies it controls, available through its Sony Pictures Repertory department. “We don’t have all 3,000 prints (of a title), but we will have a healthy selection so we can still distribute to theaters that want it.“
Peter Conheim says Sony’s efforts to preserve its catalogue show a “completely different mindset” than some other studios. “They had a whole mission in the '90s to preserve every film that Columbia Pictures ever made. Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, whoever."
Warner Bros.: The 'Anti-Sony'
Last fall, PFA ran a Stanley Kubrick retrospective in which the movies were predominantly DCP. Seid says that’s because Warner Bros. did not offer them on film. "If you want to screen Kubrick's films, you have no choice but to accept the prints they will provide and they are, almost without exception, digital. The door to the vault is resoundingly closed."
Like Seid, Conheim and Lavine said it’s almost impossible to get a film print out of Warner Bros.
Anita Monga, of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, has had a different experience with the studio; she's gotten prints from it as recently as the January Noir City Festival she coprogrammed at the Castro Theatre.
Bergeron, the Balboa owner, says that Warners is just extremely discriminating about who it will ship film prints to.
“Since most 35mm copies are the last ones, they are very selective about who they rent to,” he said. “If it were to get damaged, it wouldn’t exist in the world anymore.”
Monga says she agrees with that policy wholeheartedly.
"I used to show things at the Castro and we would talk studios into making preservation prints, and the print would be $3,000. We would take exquisite care of it, it would go onto somebody else, and then the print would be ruined, so we wouldn’t be able to show it again.
"(But) if you screw up the DCP, there’s another DCP that takes its place. I think (DCPs are) incredibly good news for classic cinema."
One reason programmers focus on Warner Bros. is that it controls such a large part of America's cinematic output, through its ownership of the old MGM/ UA and RKO libraries, in addition to its own.
Conheim contends Warner Bros. could make new film prints if it chose to, and the studios’s reluctance is part of the broader rush to digital.
“(Warner Bros.) began to downplay 35mm pretty early on," he says. "They would only make new prints generally if they were monetizing big titles for super popular things."
Lavine calls Warner the “anti-Sony” in terms of accessibility to 35mm prints. But he does praise the studio for making its back catalogue available through the Warner Archive collection, from which you can order a custom-made film burned onto DVD.
“I ran 30 of those titles in a festival,” says Lavine. "I’ve been doing this particular show for 25 years and this was my best attended ever." In November, he says, Roxie attendance at a program of French noir, all on DVD, topped even that show.
Seid, for one, doesn't think this gets Warner off the hook, because he doesn't believe DVDs of films are suitable for theatrical presentation.
"They were never intended to be anything more than a consumer product," he says. "I think there is a trade-off between access to any copy of a work that will allow you to exhibit a film,” he says, “and the notion that the film requires a certain level of reputable reproduction and the audience deserves as well a modicum of aesthetic integrity in the presentation."
Warner Bros. declined to comment for this article.
As far as working with Paramount, Universal, MGM, Disney and Fox, the curators had varying opinions, with the majority praising Universal for being almost as beneficent as Sony in making titles available on film.
Sony Gets High Marks For Digital Transfers
Lavine and Seid both said they prefer to show in 35mm, but only if the prints are in decent condition.
“We prefer to match a work with its medium of origination. But there is a big difference between prefer and can," Seid said. "I favor the art, not the artifact.”
Seid said that means foregoing a print in terrible condition if a well-crafted DCP is available.
And when it comes to making DCPs, Sony's reputation, again, is stellar. The company's Grover Crisp earned great respect for his film restorations in the pre-digital age, and now he's garnering similar praise for his digital transfers. Monga says Sony has made the most impressive digital prints to date.
“They’re just really careful,” Seid said of Crisp's department. “You can do bad, quick transfers to digital, where contrast is bad and color timing is off. And some places do that—they’re in a hurry or they don’t want to spend the money.”
Sony now creates DCPs only from 4k scans, which yields a resolution roughly four times of what one sees on a Blu-ray disc.
"4K is much closer to capturing the inherent image quality of a typical 35mm film frame than 2K, which has been the standard resolution for many years," Crisp says. "Scanning 35mm film at 2K means you are leaving out information—image quality, detail, sharpness—that is actually in the film."
"Anybody can do 4k," says Monga, "but they're doing it really beautifully. I’ve seen horrible 35mm prints done where the lab didn’t time it properly. You get film that was timed to television so it looks completely washed out on the big screen.
"He's an artist," she says without hesitation of Crisp. "The people who run the lab, they're craftspeople. They made beautiful 35mm and they're making beautiful digital."
Crisp, who has overseen restorations of such classics as On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, Taxi Driver, Dr. Strangelove, Five Easy Pieces, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is known for consulting with the cinematographers and directors of the films he's working on. He says his department is careful to resist the temptation to use the powerful digital tools now at their disposal to make the original movie look “better,” a process he called “tampering.”
“We don’t go into any of our films... and automatically start thinking it needs to look contemporary,” he says. “You can remove film grain or manipulate imagery in any number of ways, but you have to be careful and make sure you’re controlling those tools, and it’s not the other way around.”
Monga says early in the digital restoration era, "people thought, 'oh, let’s clean this up.' It was horrifying. Grover is the exemplar of someone who is doing this with sensitivity."
But that doesn't mean he won't go in and aggressively rectify physical problems. New tools have allowed repair of damage that was too complex to fix in an analog world, Crisp says. Such is the case for a 4k restoration of In Cold Blood, which will premiere at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival.
Crisp calls a film's original camera negative the "piece of gold we all want," but In Cold Blood's negative had a 22-frame tear in it. “Now that’s slightly less than a second, but it’s visible," Crisp says. "It shows on the screen as a gash that runs across the length of the frame.”
A previous restoration, in the '90s, had also removed that defect, but only by using second and third generation source materials duplicated from the original negative to replace the entire shot. That left it looking obviously softer and grainier than the rest of the film, Crisp said. The current restoration avoids this tradeoff by filling in the area of the tear with intact material on either side of the 22 frames.
Demand for 35mm Waning
Despite the protestations of some celluloid purists, demand for 35mm is waning even among cinephiles, Crisp says. Thus, Sony is only making 35mm prints of its digital restorations for preservation purposes, not for rental by theaters.
“What we’ve found over the last few years is the actual requests for prints have dropped dramatically, even at theaters where they always wanted the latest and greatest new print," Crisp explains. "Most of those theaters have now switched to digital. What we knew would happen is once theaters do this, they really lose interest in prints, because DCP is so much easier."
Adam Bergeron of the Balboa agrees. He says while the theater has occasional glitches with DCPs, they are nothing like the Christmas Day fiasco that occurred when the film for the newly released Les Miserables broke. “We ruined Christmas for a couple of hundred people,” Bergeron says. (On the other hand, Craig Valenza, a projectionist at PFA for more than 40 years, told me he can fix most any problem that arises with film, but if something goes screwy with a DCP, he has to call in tech support.)
Crisp understands some who love film are reluctant to embrace digital.
“I’ve found it’s tough to convince some people," he says. "That’s partly due to some of the work that's been seen around for a number of years. But if we are really careful in how you prepare your digital version, you can have a very good and fairly authentic theatrical experience. It is different, but it doesn’t have to look like video."
Monga called those who won't give digital a chance "format fetishists." And Lavine thinks those who cling to the 35mm past do not have a happy future in store.
"To hang onto the notion that the only pure way to watch it or to experience it is on film, then your entire spectrum becomes so narrow," Lavine says. "You’re going to be watching the same movies over and over."
Even a 35mm hardliner like Peter Conheim says as long as the audience is informed in advance, sometimes a title's digital version represents the better theatrical option.
"You have to strive to present the 'best' version of the work that you can, the 'best' which exists, otherwise you are consigning it to purgatory by simply refusing to show it in a verifiably good digital master. The key words are 'verifiably good,' and most curators, as well as sales reps at the studios, should be able to make that distinction. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that it can be elusive."
Still, he's disappointed that Sony will not offer its new 4k transfers as 35mm rentals. If Sony abandons its longstanding practice of providing film prints as it makes newer and better digital transfers, it would be a shame.
"Seeing a film as intended on celluloid," he says, "is still the way it should be done."